Marianela Boán: Citizen of the World
by Suzanne Carbonneau
DanzAbierta, the name of the dance company that Marianela Boán founded in Cuba, is translated as Open Dance. And this title is as concise an artistic manifesto as is conceivable: a proclamation of freedom, honesty, receptivity and curiosity. The idea of openness is, in fact, the key to understanding Boán’s life and career. For while her artistic path seems convoluted in its particulars, in its generality it is strikingly linear—that is, it takes a direct path toward openness, in every sense of that term.
When Boán founded DanzAbierta in 1988, she had already lived around the world as an accidental bystander to a variety of revolutions. She was born in Guatemala to activist parents in exile from Batista’s Cuba, but it was only months before the family was on the move again, fleeing the Guatemalan revolution, first for Mexico and then Cuba. When Castro came to power, Boán’s father joined the regime, founding La Prensa Latina, the government press agency. His duties in explaining Fidel’s revolution to the world took Boán to the United States, where they lived in Washington, DC for two years. Her father next moved the family to Algeria, during the revolution there, so that he could cover Che Guevara’s activities in Africa. It was not until her father was killed in an accident in Algeria when she was 9 years old, that Boán came to settle in Cuba.
The Cuba in which Boán found herself had been transformed utterly by revolution. While the United States blockade of the island nation meant that food and consumer goods were scarce, the government nonetheless committed itself to supporting the arts. At the age of eleven, Boán was a member of the second class to enter Escuela Nacional de Danza, the government-sponsored modern dance school in Havana that had been founded by a group of (mostly) American women who had emigrated there to support Fidel’s revolution and the Cuban experiment. Elfrieda Mahler, who had danced for Alwin Nikolais, and Lorna Burdsall, a disciple of Doris Humphrey, directed the school, which offered a full curriculum of modern and folkloric techniques, composition, painting, music, acrobatics and dance dramaturgy. The story of the school—its ambitions and deprivations—has become familiar to Americans through
Boán’s teacher, Alma Guilleropietro, whose Dancing with Cuba: A Memoir of the Revolution, became a bestseller in 2004. In her book, Guillermopietro describes bringing her experience of studying with Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham and of dancing for Twyla Tharp to the Cuban students. While Gulliermipietro lasted at the school for only six months (she and the directors were mutually relieved at her departure), Boán spent six years immersed in the intensive curriculum before graduating at the age of eighteen.
But in the 1970s, Cuba turned inward. The importation of foreign teachers and choreographers ceased and fraternization with foreigners was disallowed. Artists and homosexuals became particular targets of isolation and coercion during Cuba’s Gray Period (1971-1976), in which Cuba modeled itself on Soviet economic and cultural policies. It was into this atmosphere of repression that Boán graduated into the Conjunto Nacional de Danza Moderna in 1973. Founded in the 1960s by Ramiro Guerra, who had studied with Martha Graham, this was the first modern dance company in Cuban history. Although he is now honored as the Father of Modern Dance in Cuba, Guerra, as a gay man, became a victim of the Stalinism of the Gray Period and was removed from the company. Guerra had been dedicated to the avant-garde, embracing happenings and other experimentation fermenting outside the country, and his detention was a severe blow to the burgeoning modern dance movement in Cuba.
When the Cuban government relaxed its iron fist in the late 1970s, however, opportunity arose for the generation of choreographers produced by the Revolution to find their voices. Vibrations from the outside world once again began to reach Cuban artists, and Boán hungrily devoured information that would open her to other movement languages. When Boán began to choreograph, she was determined to resuscitate Guerra’s legacy of narrative dance conceived from a conceptual stance. Her first group choreography, made in 1980, was decidedly experimental and Guerra embraced Boán as his successor.
While she had spent her childhood traveling the globe, in her Cuban period Boán was intensely focused on life on the island. Her dances took that country as their subject, amalgamating modern dance with folklore and Cuban symbols. Cuba is, of course, one of the most syncretic cultures in the world, the crossroad of Spain, Africa, and the Americas.
Because Cuba had turned inward after the Revolution, however, Boán’s subject became an historically open country that had become solipsistic. But, as an artist, Boán was determined to stay as open to the world as possible. For artistic models, she looked primarily to theater, and she she assimilated the aesthetic discoveries of the “poor theater” of Polish director Jerzy Grotowski, the theater anthropology of Eugenio Barba, the scenic experiments of Tadeusz Kantor, and the biomechanics of Vsevolod Meyerhold. And here she found inspiration for her own unique approach to dance, which she came to call “contaminated.”
Contamination is a term that Boán adopted from composers, who used this idea as an indication of their openness to mingling other styles into their scores. Boán decided that she would do the same in dance, contaminating it with other elements—with folklore, fashion, voice, painting, sports—with anything, that is, that would increase the ability of choreography to radiate outward in reference and meaning. While on the face of it, this bore some resemblance to the dance theater movement gaining steam in Europe, Boán’s sensibility was very different from the expressionism of Pina Bausch and her acolytes. Boán meant to collage elements, rather, into a variety of “expressive channels.” With her theory of contamination, Boán declared herself open—abierta—to anything.
Boán realized that she would need her own laboratory to work out these ideas. While scientific laboratories are designed to minimize contamination, Boán’s aesthetic laboratory was intended to maximize it. In 1988, she made a bold move, leaving the security of the Conjunto Nacional de Danza Moderna to form DanzAbierta. Boán was aided in this work by dancer Gabri Christa, who had studied postmodern dance and contact improvisation in the Netherlands and brought these new dance ideas with her to Boán’s company. (Christa would go on to dance for Bill T. Jones.) Boán threw caution aside and began working in a radical new fashion. She experimented for a year to create her first contaminated work. Without Permission, which received its premiere in December 1988, was aggressive in its attack on censorship and became notorious not only for its challenges to Cuban orthodoxy but also as the first Cuban dance to feature nudity. For the next 16 years, Boán continued to create choreography that confronted a closed society with truth and openness. But in her focus on Cuban society, Boán found her work and person stymied by the insularity of this subject. Forbidden by political decision-makers to travel to countries such as Mexico, Israel and the United States, Boán found her career regressing and her ability to contaminate her work widely and freely at stake. And while her company was assisted by the government, her open criticism of the regime insured that she never had the level of support that she deserved. While acknowledged by her peers as the foremost contemporary choreographer in Cuba, Boán was hobbled by the unstable working conditions wrought by her unrelenting choreographic dissent.
But most importantly, Boán found that she was no longer interested in making work that was solely focused on Cuba. For twenty years, she had been the implicit leader of choreographic opposition to the regime, and she found herself pigeon-holed by this role. Despite her decades of artmaking devoted to criticizing the Cuban government, Boán came to the reluctant conclusion that the system would never change until larger historical forces came into play. Moreover, as she was creating her last Cuban work in 2001, she realized that the contaminations she needed for this choreography were technological. And, in Cuba, she did not have access to technology nor to the kind of information made possible by technology. Boán recognized that, no matter how open she made herself, as a Cuban, she was under virtual house arrest in not having access to the information that the rest of the world took for granted. Her status as Cuban insider doomed her to outsider status in relation to the wider world, and she knew that this was an intolerable situation for an artist devoted to openness and committed to bringing the world into her work. So, this radical movement artist made her most radical move yet. She decided to leave Cuba. In doing so, she was forced not just to leave but—because of the political situation—to abandon her country.
Leaving her home, her language, her culture, her reputation as an artist, and career security, Boán arrived in the United States with nothing but thirty years experience of choreographic experimentation to her name. And even this reputation would have to be re-built, virtually from scratch, in the United States. But, as Boán says, she has trained for crises her entire life.
She found immediate support at the Bates Dance Festival, where director Laura Faure, who had seen Boán’s choreography in Cuba, gave her residency opportunities. She chose Philadelphia as her base because she found the dedication to research and experimentation among artists there similar to what she had experienced in Havana. And she began to assimilate what she had left home for: creating art that is contaminated by the present moment in culture.
Boán’s US company, founded in 2005, is titled BoánDanz Action, a conceptual heir to DanzAbierta (which continues to operate in Cuba). In the choreography Boán has made since emigrating to the United States, she has taken as her subject, as she did in Cuba, the society around her. She is not interested in her own dislocation, but as she has always done, offers keen observations that are, all at once, political, social, philosophical and aesthetic. In this position, Boán presents Americans the chance to observe their culture through the fresh viewpoint of an outsider. Boán finds her choreographic reactions to America less specific than her Cuban societal critiques; she is, she says, more interested in being impressionistic—less direct and theatrical, more abstract and physical. She has satisfied those frustrations at not having had technology in Cuba, basing her American-made work around consumer-quality video cameras. And she does this in the smartest way possible—using technology in an effort to capture just who technology has made us.
For Marianela Boán, this latest artistic adventure is just beginning. But as she has always done, Boán brings with her all the courage and daring of a dissident daughter of revolution. As a citizen and an artist, Boán has spent decades fighting attempts—by politics, geography, statecraft, corruption, prudery—to curb her freedom of thought and action, and she continues to do so. In speaking truth to power, Boán reminds us all, no matter where we live, of the importance of such honesty.
For further reading:
Alma Guillermoprieto, Dancing with Cuba: A Memoir of the Revolution. Translated by Esther Allen. Pantheon Books, 2004.
© Suzanne Carbonneau 2007